New Delhi/Hyderabad/Chennai: At the peak of the scorching summer last year, the Tamil Nadu government promised air-conditioned travel for the common man in Chennai by constructing a Metro rail system, along the lines of the Delhi Metro, at a cost of Rs9,000 crore.

Over in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, the state government is planning its own Metro project in Hyderabad at a cost of around Rs8,500 crore.

What neither of the state governments talks much about is the fact that both cities already have relatively new train-based urban transport systems, neither of which has come anywhere close to fulfilling its initial promise.

The mass rapid transit system (MRTS) in Chennai was built for Rs900 crore in two phases—a part of its second phase has been operational since 2003—over two decades. Today, it is famous for deserted stations and empty trains.

The Hyderabad system, the multi-modal transportation system (MMTS), started just four years ago, is also sharply underperforming.

Two Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) reports point out that the Chennai MRTS, largely due to a faulty selection of routes, has been able to attract only 2% of the commuters that were projected to use it. The reports also note that the Hyderabad MMTS attracts only 10% of original passenger projections.

It isn’t that Chennai and Hyderabad don’t have the demand for a faster and more public transport systems. Both cities are booming and commuters there face significant bottlenecks and growing traffic jams as city roads struggle to keep up with increasing population and influx of vehicles.

Transportation experts blame poor planning and connections for poor performance of the transit systems as well as unwillingness by the Union government to ask tough questions on the projects.

In the case of Hyderabad, “when the MMTS project was conceived, Chandrababu Naidu was in power in Andhra Pradesh and he was indispensable to the then National Democratic Alliance government (at the Centre). The Telugu Desam Party wanted the MMTS project and so the Union government had to deliver," says one former railways veteran, who didn’t want to be named.

Indeed, in its report, the CAG said there was no evidence that the railways carried out a relative analysis of various lines and projected traffic on them before selecting these lines for the Hyderabad MMTS.

The system’s losses in 2005 and 2006 add up to Rs73.16 crore because a service, designed for 350,000 commuters per day, gets on average about 35,000.

Similarly, the expected traffic in Chennai’s two-phase MRTS as per project projections was about 600,000 passengers per day. It averages 12,395 passenger trips per day. The main problem with the MRTS, says the report, is that it passes through too many slums and marshy areas, making it difficult for passengers to access the railway stations.

Railway Board member R.K. Rao agrees that the low commuter usage was worrying and adds that the railways may look at “winding up these two suburban projects if they continued to make losses."

Now, with both cities talking about introducing a separate Metro system, the existing projects may indeed turn out to be unviable, says Rao.

Meanwhile, neither city is giving much details about integrating the existing train system with its planned Metro, something that experts say is vital to rescue the two systems from slipping further into the red.

An urban planner associated with Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority said the lower-than-expected demand for current services on the MRTS has been because the rail network has not created a new transport corridor but has only duplicated the existing one on Beach Road. “The project will be successful only if it’s extended till St. Thomas Mount and can connect with existing suburban rail network," he said.

He added that the creation of Metropolitan Transport Authority, which will help issue a single ticket for different modes of transport, along with upgradation of facilities near the train stations, are essential for increasing passengers on the MRTS.

Meanwhile, the new metro projects are asking for a lot of taxpayers’ money.

The Chennai Metro, for instance, is expected to get an assistance of around Rs5,000 crore from the Centre through the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. The remaining Rs4,000 crore will come from the state government, which is part of the United Progressive Alliance coalition that includes the Congress party.

Anuj Dayal, spokesperson for the well-regarded Delhi Metro Rail Corp., which runs the Capital’s Metro, said that in every Metro project, existing rail- and road-based infrastructure is generally exploited to the maximum. “Even in Delhi, we have linked up with the Old and New Delhi railway stations," he notes.

The Hyderabad Metro Rail, however, will have more money coming in from the private sector, which is why the pre-qualified consortia are carrying out their own traffic studies to ensure viability. This is in spite of the fact that the state government has promised a ridership of 1.58 million passengers per day.

The Hyderbabad Metro is considered the single largest Metro project coming up in India under the public-private-partnership model.

The maximum grant from both the Central and state governments works out to 39% of the project cost or Rs3,277 crore.

The shortlisted pre-qualified international consortia for the Hyderabad project include Essar Constructions (with SREI of Kolkata, MRT, SEC and STE of Singapore), Magna Allmore of Malaysia (with Germany-based Siemens, Dubai-based Emirates Trading Agency and Nagarjuna Construction Co.), Reliance Energy of Anil D Ambani Group (with Bombardier of Canada), GVK with (Gammon, Alstom of France and IDFC), and Navabharat group (with Maytas, Ital Thai of Thailand and IL&FS).

Despite their poor passenger performance, the old transit systems have their supporters who primarily are comfortable that they are low-budget.

“Despite the existing problems, poor frequency and connectivity, the MMTS in Hyderabad should not be construed as a failure taking into view the meagre investment of around Rs200 crore made on it," insists N.V.S. Reddy, managing director, Hyderabad Metro Rail Ltd, which is implementing the new Metro project. The expenditure on the project was around Rs4 crore per km, whereas it is set to cost around Rs130 crore per km in the case of the Metro rail project, he notes.

Reddy also says they are planning to integrate the Metro project with the MMTS.

Meanwhile, some commuters have come to rely on the train systems. S. Raja, who travels by the MRTS every day in Chennai, says the train services have now improved with full occupancy during peak hours. Office-goers and people working in the information technology industry are the major users of the service, he says. “The major stations between Beach (where the service starts) and Tiruvanmiyur have been spruced up in the last few months."

That’s not the case in Hyderabad. P.V. Tejovathi regularly commutes by the MMTS in Hyderabad. “We do not have bus services to most of the MMTS stations," she says. “God knows what happened to the multi-modal transport through buses that the government had announced when the MMTS train was introduced. The train frequency is also poor. Sometimes, we have to wait for close to an hour and during peak hours the trains are jam-packed."